Adrenaline Tourism: Swimming with Sharks in Fiji
By Scott Dicken
When thinking of Fiji one may daydream of invitingly pristine white-sand beaches, hammocks strung between palm trees, and bars serving ice cold beers. And you would be right. Kuata, a tiny island only two hours by boat from Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu, lives up to those expectations. Yet, I’d made the trip with intentions far from a lazy day in paradise. The sole purpose of my visit was to experience an ‘up close and personal’ interaction with sharks in the wild. World renowned for its opportunities to dive with the predators of the deep, the Barefoot Kuata Resort arranges for visitors to face their fears by offering guided dives and snorkeling with all manner of predators from the notorious Bull Shark to Tiger Sharks, Great Hammerheads, Lemons, and Reef Sharks.
Is it safe? Is it ethical? Is it worth it? These are probably all questions running through your mind. Read on to find out.
My day began in relative tranquility, as most holidays to lush tropical paradise islands should. After two hours of cruising between palm-fringed islands and skimming across the azure waters of the South Pacific, we arrived at Kuata’s beachfront. I was greeted by ukulele-wielding resort staff eager to extend a traditionally Fijian “Bula”, an infectiously genuine greeting wishing you good health and happiness. Following further rounds of trading “Bula’s” with pretty much every resident of the tiny island, and having slathered enough sunscreen on to my pasty white British Skin to sink a battleship, we boarded yet another boat to head out twenty minutes towards the local Moyia reef system.
At this point you could sense a growing anticipation and excitement amongst my fellow shipmates as we strapped on our fins, tightened our dive goggles, and readied our camera equipment for the adventure that awaited beneath the surface of the water. It wasn’t until the final moments of an unnervingly comprehensive safety and interaction briefing that the tranquility was truly pierced.
“I’ll pray for you.”
Although uttered in jest, those were the chilling final words spoken by our captain as we launched ourselves over the side of the boat and into the shark-infested waters. Regardless of the consistent messages of our absolute safety, there is a sense of foreboding as you gracefully step off a boat and plunge into the ocean or, as is more my style, belly flop into the murky depths after slipping on a floatation device. That foreboding is only heightened when you spot a herd of sharks (also called a ‘school’, ‘gam’, ‘frenzy’ or ‘shiver’) circling below amongst the coral.
My concerns were soon replaced by gloriously colored coral and tropical fish seen through a thick curtain of bubbles hurtling upwards to the surface.
And then I saw a 3-meter-long Whitetip.
A Whitetip Reef Shark was gracefully swimming towards me in what I can only describe as an inquisitive, yet cautious, approach. While lower on the danger and size scale than the Bull Shark it was nonetheless intimidating when it used its mouth to take a closer inspection of my camera.
Both Black and Whitetip Reef Sharks are regarded as docile on a relative scale of shark aggressiveness. Although inquisitive by nature, they’re generally skittish. From a safety perspective, jellyfish stings are likely of greater concern than being attacked by a Reef Shark. Whilst reef tips might well be 99.99% safe to swim with, as with any adrenaline activity there is an element of risk – perhaps from a shark having a particularly bad day or taking a misguided nibble after mistaking your leg for a chicken drumstick. It’s for that very reason that being surrounded by twenty-odd Reef Sharks over the course of an hour was extremely unsettling.
Growing to around 6ft in length, Whitetips are considered a near-threatened species due to their late age of maturity, small litter size, and the loss of their traditional coral reef habitat. They’re also commercially over-fished in some tropical markets. For this reason, tourism programs such as the one operated by Kuata play an increasingly important role in sustainable conversation efforts; something that Take Photos Leave Footprints is happy to support.
My time at Kuata was focused on reef sharks. In large part this was due to time restrictions during my visit. If you have more time, I would highly recommend the Island’s unique ‘Awakening Shark Dive’. Developed by shark experts and designed to ensure dive safety and sustainability, the Awakening Shark Dive puts divers up close and personal with Bull Sharks in their own habitat and on their own terms. Bull Sharks have a strong reputation for being aggressive, but this is a controlled experience led by highly knowledgeable guides and has been specifically designed by shark behaviorists. So, similarly to the reef shark snorkeling and diving, you’re in relatively safe hands.
Both snorkeling with reef sharks and the ‘Shark Awakening Dive’ can be booked directly through the Barefoot Kuata Resort. The day trip options available on the website include boat transfers from Denerau port on the main island of Viti Levu to the Yasawa Islands. Kuata is the first island reached in the Yasawa Island Chain. The boat transfers are operated by South Sea Cruises and Awesome Adventures Fiji. Bookings can also be made through those two websites.
Snorkeling and dive gear is provided by the resort. In addition, non-motorized watersports such as kayaks and paddleboards are available for use free of charge. The only things you’ll need to take with you are a beach towel, sunscreen, an underwater camera and your nerve!
(Recommendation of Barefoot Kuata Resort and Awakening Shark Dive excursion are mine alone – without any payments or pretensions)